Aaron Eckhart stars as Harvey Dent, the newly elected District Attorney of Gotham City, in The Dark Knight written and directed by Christopher Nolan. Fans of the Batman comic book series know what happens to Harvey Dent…and if you don't want to know anything about Eckhart's character's transformation prior to taking in a screening of The Dark Knight, then I suggest you don't read anything further. You've been warned.
Writer/director Nolan believes Harvey Dent and The Joker are two of the most fascinating characters from the Batman comics. While The Joker doesn't actually have an arc – he's set on one course and that's it – Harvey Dent has a compelling arc. He starts off as the 'White Knight,' the man with a mission to save Gotham City from the clutches of organized crime. But events conspire against Harvey Dent and he's pushed into taking a different path than the one he originally set out on.
Eckhart says he didn't consider the outcome of his character while playing the part of Harvey Dent. "I guess as an actor you train yourself, you have all the information anyway, you know how the script reads and how it ends all the time so you just don't think about things like that. You know, the interesting and more difficult thing about this in playing Harvey Two-Face was just finding the right tone for him because I frankly didn't have a clue, in conjunction with the other characters in the movie, keeping the tone in the ballpark of the other characters – Batman and what Heath [Ledger] was doing with The Joker. Those were questions that I had for Chris because Chris has the whole thing in mind. I said, 'How is this? Is this where I need to be? Should I go bigger or should I go smaller?' So we did a lot of different variations and then Chris cut it the way he wanted to cut it. But who knows one's fate in comic book movies?"
Prior to The Dark Knight's release, Warner Bros Pictures did its best to keep images of Eckhart in Two-Face makeup off the internet. It's a startling transformation, but Eckhart says it's actually subtle compared to what Christopher Nolan could have done with the character. "That's what I was thinking," said Eckhart. "That's another thing about the tone of the movie was, 'Are we going to go outer space with this or what's the makeup going to be like? Do you want to get humor out of this?' Look at Heath. Sometimes humor is mostly scary in a psychological way. So now I don't think we really should discuss how the makeup is applied or what it is because I really feel like people go there with a fresh, an open mind and not have the baggage of the technique or the how it was done aspect. I think it's better for them. But I thought that, you know, in the way that it was played, just right down the middle straight, not too big, not too… 'Just play it like it's not even there,' that was the whole objective of it, I think."
Christopher Nolan opted for makeup and practical effects over CGI whenever possible, according to Eckhart. "…He says the reason why things look real is because they were because Chris, in any instance that he could, would do the real thing. He used stuntmen. He used the best in the world. He would flip trucks. He would fly helicopters in. At one point I was in a building with somebody, the mayor, and all of a sudden a string of I don't know what kind of helicopters they were but they were Army helicopters, and they just come right through the downtown Chicago, lower than the buildings. [Making helicopter noises] I was like, 'Whoa!' I thought there was a war on in Chicago or Batman was in town [laughing]. You know, flipping cars and all that stuff is real and that's why this movie looks real. I know that greenscreen was used but I think sparingly. He likes to keep things [real]. He likes to employ stuntmen."
After exploring Harvey Dent's motivations, Eckhart came up a theory on what made him tick: "I think Harvey's darkness was, and I'm sure that law enforcement plays with this all the time, is they feel like they're constrained by they love the law but they're constrained by the law. Sometimes they can't deal with what they know is right the way they want to. I felt like that's where Batman came in, right, because that's what Batman's all about. Batman's about doing extraordinary things in extraordinary circumstances, and at this point Gotham City is so mired with the cancer of corruption and criminality, that Harvey really is the only one that's willing to take it on publicly. So I'm sure that Harvey dreamed of doing what he might later be doing as Harvey Two-Face. Do you see what I'm saying? I think it's frankly probably pretty liberating, you know, in the end. It's like when The Joker asks Batman to betray his one cardinal rule. Will Batman do that? What other route is there for Batman to get the information that he needs? It's so pertinent today in terms of what's going on with torturing people and all that sort of stuff. How far are we willing to go to get the answers? I think Harvey struggles for that. I think Harvey would like to use Batman's tools. He wants to be part of the club, I think. That's where he goes dark."
The death of Heath Ledger was a tragic loss, and Eckhart spoke openly about working with him on his last completed film. "I had a great time working with Heath. Unfortunately I didn't get to know Heath better than I did and I didn't work with him as much as I wanted to. But, you know, Heath is one of those actors that other actors admire and want to be. You know, to be so young and to be so good and to be so smart is rare. And just, you know, he loved this character of The Joker. It was his baby. He cared about The Joker very much, making the decisions and really thinking about him and creating him, and creating his look, really putting his stamp on it."
"It was fun because I was in the trailer while Heath was doing his makeup, I would do my makeup. So we got to have that time together and for him to play around with his makeup and me mine, and do the funny faces and the noises and kind of do whatever that brought to us. When we were doing our scene in the hospital, he was amazing," said Eckhart.